Parashat R’eih

Friday, August 10, 2018 /29 Av, 5778
Parashat R’eih Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17

Dear Friends,

  • Deuteronomy 15:4 – “There shall be no needy among you…”
  • Deuteronomy 15:7 – “If, however, there is a needy person among you…”
  • Deuteronomy 15:11 – “For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land…”

It seems like Deuteronomy cannot get its story straight. Does Torah envision a world in which we ameliorate impoverishment and remediate injustice, such that there no longer are poor, hungry and needy souls among us? Or not?

I would suggest that Torah is teaching a value or an aspiration, not offering a prescription or description. Of course, there always will be poor and needy people among us – just look at the street corners in San Pedro, or nearly any other city in Southern California. If I were homeless and needy, I would opt to live in Southern California, too, rather than Sheboygan or Schenectady. Yet, Torah applies no less to Wisconsin or New York, than it does in California.

In essence, Torah is a document which elides the real with the ideal, and begs us to do the same. Torah begins with the ideal, “There shall be no needy among you…” It is the world which God first created, when we dwelled in the Garden. There was no shortage of fig leaves, and food was abundant. Disparity of wealth was unimaginable, especially when the world population was merely ‘two’. Yes, it was a mythic existence, but it set the bar for the ideal.

Yet, then came reality. Along with growth and sophistication and diversity, humanity also generated inequality of power, affluence and influence. Reality became apparent, “If, however, there is a needy person among you…” Torah had to swallow its dream, and command us to live in the real, and care for the needy.

Ultimately, Torah had to concede, “For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land…”

This week, we stand on the cusp of the month of Elul, heralding a New Year of the Jewish people, and we begin with these words of Torah. No matter how much we dream and we imagine, we must be grounded in what is real. And, as much as we are confronted with what is real, we must never cease to imagine the ideal.

That is the essential message of Torah.

With Shalom, and Shanah Tovah Tikateivu,
Rabbi Doug Kohn